“Ten Years Later: Tunisia’s Revolution and Democratic Transition”
January 14, 2021
Watch the full event here.
Read the event transcript here.
On January 14, 2011, in the face of peaceful mass demonstrations, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and his dictatorship crumbled. Tunisia then embarked on a transition to democracy, a complex process that is still unfolding. Tunisia stands today as the only democracy in the Arab world. But the ongoing transition continues to face numerous challenges, and the revolution’s demands for dignity and socioeconomic justice remain unfulfilled.
This special tenth anniversary event looked back at the revolution, reflected on the last decade, and discussed where Tunisia is today.
- Tunisians have been betrayed by our political and economic elites, who rule in a way that does not serve the goals of the revolution.
- A new national dialogue might just be one more debate among a political class that lacks the creativity to offer solutions for the country. A dialogue must go beyond the official establishment to be productive.
- We want a Tunisia that is prosperous and respectful to everyone. But we don’t know who we are. Are we a communist country? Certain institutions are. Are we a neo-liberal country? Certain institutions are. Are we conservative? What [is] our position on foreign policy issues? All these things keep on changing based on who’s ruling the country. We need a real dialogue about who we want to be as a country.
- The feeling in Tunisia today is one of despair. We no longer have a consensus on transition and the political system. We have ignored the social and economic demands that drove the revolution, which has come back to haunt us today.
- An oddity of our democratic transition is that people from the former regime were at the heart of the transition from the beginning. The problem is not needing to exclude former regime people; it’s more about defining accountability—what is the acceptable threshold of involvement in Ben Ali’s horrific human rights record? But we didn’t have any lustration process, we didn’t have any accountability to start with a fresh slate.
- Accountability and ending impunity are important to get the transition back on track. Today nobody is answering for his wrongdoings, on all levels. We have a total disregard for the system.
- We are reaching the maximum of polarization and tension inside the political class. Among other problems, the parliament has been incapable of creating the Constitutional Court. Without this core institution, Tunisia does not have guardrails for political power.
- We need a new dialogue between different political families to come up with solutions, take decisions, and do something concrete for the country.
- Most of my generation still have high hopes for the future, despite the darkness of the situation, because we don’t have another choice. Democracy is never something which is guaranteed, it’s something you always fight for.
Amb. Gordon Gray:
- The U.S. Embassy in Tunis saw some signs of discontent predating the revolution, and in 2010 there was a real sense of fin du régime. But I don’t want to exaggerate and suggest that we thought, “Ben Ali is going to be out of here before January 2011.” I’m not sure anyone saw the signs of how quickly it would happen, or more to the point, how brittle the regime was.
- It was very frustrating working as a U.S. diplomat in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. The government did not want to engage with us or with any foreign embassy. Worse, they pressured Tunisians not to engage with us.
- One of the first signs that the regime was in trouble was when Ben Ali visited Mohamed Bouazizi in the hospital on December 28, 2010. The idea that the king was visiting a subject was very much unlike Ben Ali. As the demonstrations intensified in January 2011, we strongly advised the government, both publicly and privately, to avoid violence, which unfortunately it did not do.
- We were surprised at how quickly the regime crumbled. For all the criticism that Ben Ali richly deserves, he left his country when he did, and the result was much less bloodshed than in Libya or Syria and elsewhere.
- I would have liked to have seen the United States do more, and would still like to see us do more, on trade and job creation. Improving employment is central to the transition succeeding.
Photo Credit: POMED